By 2100, coastal cities like Kota Kinabalu might be an underwater ghost town.
This might sound like an ending of a disaster movie where metropolitan cities are consumed by a giant tidal wave, and the skyscrapers submerged but for their spires, turning into perch for seagulls.
Except that this is not fiction. In a special report by the July 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine entitled, “Secret Antarctica: The bottom of the world as you’ve never seen it”, scientists warned that the rapid meltdown of the icy continent could raise sea levels dramatically and cause a global crisis.
To put the size of Antarctica into perspective, it is about 42 times the size of Malaysia.
It is a desert; the southernmost, coldest, windiest, driest and most isolated continent.
The highly reflective ice sheets regulate global climate by reflecting 80 per cent of incoming solar radiation back to space.
But the continent’s coastal ice is crumbling due to the increasing warmth the sea and air around it are subjected to. Since the industrial revolution began in the 19th century, most of the heat trapped in the atmosphere by the greenhouse gas emissions is stored in the ocean. But now another effect of climate change is threatening the ice shelves.
According to the special report, aggravated circumpolar winds and currents have steered warmer water from offshore onto the ice shelves and under floating ice. West Antarctica is of a greater concern – major glaciers are melting quickly and are flowing into the sea uncontrollably. Every year it loses 30 cubic miles of ice.
British and American science foundations last year announced a collaborative field campaign of more than USD 20 million (RM 85.9 million) starting 2018 to deploy advanced equipment to assess the status of Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, which threatens to raise global sea level by four feet.
Malaysian scientists are also closely observing the stability of ice shelves in the continental west.
In the Antarctic Peninsula, our scientists are present in Signy and Rothera, whereas our research on the South Shetland Islands investigates the effects of climate change on its microbial diversity.
I first wrote about Malaysia’s involvement in Antarctica research almost a year ago, after the successful commencement of 2016 Open Science Conference and the 34th Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) Biennial Meetings held in Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, which hosted close to 1,000 local and international delegates.
Our journey to ice dates back to the 1983 United Nations General Assembly where together with Antigua through “Question of Antarctic”, we raised about governance and rights over Antarctica’s resources.
Commercials from developed countries were exploiting deep sea minerals at an extensive scale.
We advocated the need for Antarctica to be a global heritage for mankind.
In 1997 the Cabinet agreed that the country should embark on research in Antarctica with a focus in climate change and biodiversity. This active research programme and our strong international links in Antarctica research paved the way for us to join the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in 2002 as an observer.
Malaysia finally acceded to the Antarctic Treaty System in 2011 as a non-consultative party and eventually acceded to the Madrid Protocol, related to the protection of the Antarctic environment, last year.
Yayasan Penyelidikan Antartika Sultan Mizan (YPASM) was set up in 2012 to sustain the Malaysian Antarctic Research Programme in the form of research grants, fellowships and helping with complex logistical arrangements during Malaysian’s scientific expeditions to the South.
It has just concluded the 7th Malaysian International Seminar on Antarctica on Thursday, jointly organised by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), the National Antarctic Research Centre and the Terengganu state government.
We thank Sultan of Terengganu, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, for gracing the event and his unwavering support in Antarctic research.
MOSTI is now in the final stages of drafting the Antarctic Act, which is a prerequisite for us to be admitted as a consultative party to the Antarctic Treaty System. We would then have a say in the governance and environment conservation of the continent. Our stance has always been to preserve Antarctica “as a global heritage for mankind for peace and science”.
The Act would also be used to govern Malaysians working in Antarctica.
At the same time, we are developing the National Polar Road Map to drive the country’s polar science activities, including the Arctic in the North. Therefore in the near future we can expect to be engaged in the Arctic, which like its southern counterpart is experiencing the impact of global warming. As a start we are keen to join the International Arctic Science Committee as a member and the Arctic Science Council as a member.
We should not be fooled by the faraway distance the poles from our shores. Besides rise in sea levels, the rate of warming in the Arctic has made this region more accessible for resource exploitation such as oil and gas.
The retreat of the ice would open up new sea routes that would affect the shipping industry in the Straits of Malacca if the Arctic Ocean is navigable to commercial ships.
There is also evidence that warming of the Arctic region have cast extreme cold spells in Europe and Asia.
Our researchers are investigating its impact on our local climate especially during monsoons.
We have come a long way but a successful one in Antarctica research, producing 176 graduates and postgraduates in this field where they are welcome to establish scientific working relationships with international counterparts such as from New Zealand, United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, South Africa and Chile.
Not only we are now on the world map in polar science, we are at the forefront of climate change and biodiversity research. Malaysia is one of the most megadiverse countries in the world, ranking 12th. Yet we are also obliged to protect the environment beyond our shores. What goes around comes around!
I am glad that Malaysia has adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal through the Paris Climate Conference (COP21), and pledging to cut 45 per cent of our greenhouse emission by 2030.
I may not live until 2100, and certainly do not wish that predictions of coastal cities around the world would vanish come true. But I do wish to witness the beauty of Antarctica in this lifetime.